Friday, June 3, 2011


Rashid limped along the ragged line of new recruits arrayed before him on the sun-baked stones of the Maintainer's Campus. The long shadow of the Tabernacle of Benevolent Sacrifice lay parallel to the serried ranks of ill-fed men. In his new breastplate, stamped with the Maintainer's blazing sun, and heavy surcoat he felt the heat of the day like a weight pressing down on him. The click of his iron-shod cane's butt against the flagstones echoed in counterpoint to his uneven steps, made weighty by the spurs of his sabaton boots. “You have been drafted by order of His Immensity the Hierophant for service in the army of the People's Confederacy,” said Rashid. He came to a halt, swung his cane up onto his shoulder and turned to stare at the nearest recruit. He was a boy, no older than sixteen and still smooth-cheeked with youth. Rashid tapped his cane against his pauldron. “I suspect that, like all small dogs, attention from on high has convinced you of your own importance.” He whipped his cane forward in the vicious stop-thrust he had used in his duel with Latif the Dagger. It hissed through the air toward the stricken recruit and stopped, its point quivering, an inch from the boy's throat.

Rashid smiled thinly at the blushing conscript. “I am here to assure you that it has not.”

The cane's butt slammed down against hot stone. Rashid gripped it in both armored hands and leaned his weight against it, shifting as pain throbbed in his bad leg. He was too old. The recruit's face was pale, his throat working frantically. Rashid forced a sneer. “The depth of your unimportance is beyond imagining. You are small dogs, fit for the sleeves of fat, perfumed noblewomen. Your arms are weak, your feet are soft, your hearts are womanish. Who among you has killed a man?”

Silence echoed over the campus. A pair of ravens, perched in the boughs of a leafless olive tree by the walls, screamed like raucous revelers. At last, in the farthest row from Rashid, a rough-faced man raised his callused hand. “Twice, agha,” he said in voice as scarred and battered as his countenance. He grinned, showing broken teeth.

Rashid sighed inwardly. There was always at least one idiot slow enough to take the bait. He cleared his throat, then turned to the man and fixed him with an iron stare. “Did you serve His Holiness in the glorious revolution?”

The man's brow wrinkled. “No, agha, but-”

Rashid made a subtle gesture and from his post atop the shadowed curtain wall of the Tabernacle a Confederate crossbowman loosed a bolt at the grinning man. It struck him in the back of the skull with a dull, final thunk and he pitched forward onto his face. Bones and cartilage broke noisily. Legs twitched, then stillness and spreading blood. The ravens began to scream again. A few young men vomited onto the stones while others moved hastily away from their fallen comrade. On the wall, the crossbowman calmly cranked his weapon's spring. Rashid made himself look at the conscripts, meet their wide-eyed stares with a cold certainty he did not feel. “If you kill without the grace of the Hierophant's orders,” he grated out, “you will face the Maintainer's justice. If you flinch from the sight of blood, even the blood of your comrades in arms, our perfidious enemy will spill your own upon the earth to water his crops and slick his women.”

“The Maintainer protects His sons,” stammered a pretty boy of eighteen years. He wet his lips, eyes darting between Rashid's eyes and feet. “It is written-”

“The Maintainer protects those who protect themselves,” snarled Rashid. “I've seen better men than you die screaming on Imperial pikes, bodies trampled underfoot by ceratopsians, corpses defiled by the scavengers of the desert. I have seen the brave and the good murdered, robbed and raped. The Maintainer cannot save you from your own incompetence.”

An hour later he had them drilling a shield wall while he watched from a canvas camp chair in the shade of the wall, his bad leg aching like fury. He didn't bother shouting corrections, just let the young fools wear themselves out in ragged, undisciplined unison. They sweated, grunted, thrust and tripped and fell and cursed one another for the best part of three hours as Rashid watched, tapping his cane against the paving stones. At last, when his leg's protests had quieted to grumbles and the sun had begun to sink carnelian toward the horizon, Rashid stood. “Halt,” he snapped in his best parade-ground roar, and in a stumbling rush the six hundred recruits clattered to a stop in their directionless exercises. Rashid limped along their bulging, uneven forward line. “You are worse than useless,” he said, baring his yellowed teeth at the callow youths and rough-hewn street-vermin of the levies. “The depth, the magnitude of your failure upon a true battlefield, against a real enemy, would shock the fucking Thulhun gods themselves.”

Resentment boiled behind young faces and teary eyes. Narrow chests gasped for air as mouths twisted into half-restrained snarls. Rashid's smile thinned. Good. Hate was the first step. He took another step, his leg complaining, and came to a halt facing the young, dark-haired man at the center of the line. “You'd have died first,” he said. “Our reports say the rebel drugs his ankylosaurs and sends them maddened into battle ahead of his infantry. They crush the front lines, rampage through the reserves. I've heard it said that's how the lucky ones die, smashed to pulp, before the fanatics close and begin their killing. Think on that tonight, all of you worthless bastards. We drill from dawn to noon tomorrow. If you do not arrive on time, you will be whipped here naked.”

He turned his back on their horrified expressions and limped toward the brooding mass of the Tabernacle of Divine Sacrifice, a sandstone hulk straddling Leng's highest hill like some fat-bellied hermit capped in burnished brass, minaret arms lifted toward the azure sky. In its shadow, a greedy infant suckling too long at the breast, brooded the smaller Tabernacle of Learned Wisdom, seat of the Coven of the Sun. Its empty roof gaped, suggesting teeth. Ravens occupied its eaves and towers in funerary rows. Rashid hurried onward, suddenly uneasy. Matteus met him in one of the great temple's arcaded walkways, a white-haired spike clothed in flowing black. He seemed more of a kind with the basalt columns that framed him, cutting the sunlight, than he did with Rashid. “Well?” he asked, lacing his wrinkled hands together as Rashid approached.

“I can work with them,” said Rashid, fighting down his hurt at the other man's brusque manner. “It will take time.” His temper prickled. Why should it still affect him after so many years? He motioned with his cane and Matteus fell into step beside him. Rashid's cane struck time to their procession.

“You have a month,” said Matteus. The sunlight slid like oil over his robes as he moved past the arcade's columns. “The Hierophant intends swift retribution. The covens, too, prepare for war.”

Rashid halted, thunderstruck. “A month? These aren't hardened riders, Matti! They're city-bred! Soft! Three months, maybe two, but one is suicide for all of-”

Matteus rounded on Rashid, his gaunt face flushed. “Our Hierophant led us to victory twenty years ago,” he said stiffly. “If you doubt his judgment, raise the matter at court.”

They stared at one another for a tense, brittle moment, and then Matteus's hands were in Rashid's hair and they were kissing, holding each other close. Rashid stumbled, his cane clattering to the walkway. His back hit the sun-warmed stone of a pillar, their lips parted and Matteus's stubble rasped against his cheek as the other man kissed his ear. His rosewood smell filled Rashid's nostrils. “I wish you'd never left,” Matteus whispered.

“I didn't,” Rashid said. His heart raced. He buried his face in the hollow of Matteus's shoulder, tears stinging his eyes. “I didn't.”

Later they lay together on Rashid's hard bed in the Tabernacle's garrison, two old men with the bulk of their lives behind them. Rashid dozed with his head on Matteus's chest, the other man's arm around his shoulders. He closed his eyes. The war seemed a distant thing.

“There are laws, now,” said Matteus. His voice was hollow.

“I know.”

“I have a wife, Rashid. Two daughters.”

Rashid sat up, shrugging off Matteus's arm. His leg twinged, little barbs of pain slithering around his bad hip like the coils of a razor-scaled constrictor. “Go, then. It was a mistake.”

Matteus left the bed. He dressed himself, smoothing his white underrobe with meticulous care. Afterward he donned his flowing black robes, patterned with the suns of his Coven and of the Confederacy. His dark eyes flicked to Rashid, still sitting naked on the edge of the bed. “I had a future to plan for, Rashid,” he said quietly. “I'd just been accepted as a philosopher, my father had made me a worthy match and-”

“I'll have them ready to march in a month,” said Rashid. He stood, gripping his cane in his sweat-damp hand, and struggled to his bureau where he began to rummage for a clean tunic. “Tell the Hierophant.”


“Tell him.”

There was a long, grey silence. At last, Matteus nodded. “As you wish, Centurion.” He turned and left. Rashid waited until the other man's footsteps had faded, his breath thundering in his ears. When he could hear nothing, he took a vase from atop his bureau and hurled it out the narrow window to shatter on the flagstones of the Campus far below.   

1 comment:

  1. I'm liking Rashid even more now. I hope we get to see more of these two sides of him, the harsh drill master and the beaten old man. I like that he keeps up the facade.